As far as blockbusting openings to a season go, LeBron James choosing a second exile from his Ohio homeland and riding his white horse into California to rescue the Los Angeles Lakers is as good as it gets. Those who hope for a Hollywood ending, though, are likely to be frustrated by the empire further north up the West Coast, the destination for three of the last four NBA titles.
The Golden State Warriors did the impossible in free agency, upstaging LeBron’s arrival in LA within 24 hours of 'The King' announcing his decision. They signed formidable centre DaMarcus Cousins, currently recovering from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon but with the potential to make the champions’ feared Hamptons Five line-up even more terrifying. Until his injury in late January he was looking at a max deal with the New Orleans Pelicans. Instead, he’s joined the Warriors for a cut-price $5.3 million, a deal that fell into the laps of President of Basketball Operations Bob Myers and company.
Cousins’ first (and probably last) season in Oakland might come to represent the Warriors in microcosm. Team fulcrum Draymond Green will be an unrestricted free agent in 2020 and would rather wait until then and sign a supermax contract than the shorter extension for which he is eligible now. There is no way of re-signing Green at top dollar and keeping Kevin Durant. Nothing lasts forever.
In the short term, the Lakers are unlikely to make life too uncomfortable for Golden State, with LeBron surrounded by a curious ragbag of temperamental talent like Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo and Michael Beasley, added to promising youngsters including Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball. A 50-win season and a return to the playoffs would sate most appetites, even if their new talisman last missed a Finals appearance in 2010.
The more immediate effect of his move is that it shakes up the Eastern Conference with 2016 champs, the Cleveland Cavaliers, instantly reduced to also-rans post-LeBron. The Boston Celtics are probably favourites, having just fallen short of a Finals spot against the Cavs in game seven last season even with a horrendous injury absence list headed by their two stars, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, both of whom return.
The Celtics could have competition from the Philadelphia 76ers, built around an exciting young core of point guard Ben Simmons and the charismatic Joel Embiid. The Celtics-Sixers rivalry has potential to run and run, and British fans were lucky enough to taste it last January when the two met in the best NBA London confrontation to date.
Up north, the Toronto Raptors will hope to crash the party having pulled off the most audacious trade of the summer, bringing in the mighty Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for franchise legend DeMar DeRozan. Neither player was over the moon with the move at first but Leonard in particular – potentially one of the best three players in the league – has much to prove after missing all but nine games of last season through injury.
The Spurs themselves face a transitional year with most of Gregg Popovich’s trusted troops now gone. Manu Ginobili finally retired, the similarly storied Tony Parker chose a new challenge with the Charlotte Hornets and Danny Green also went to Toronto in the Leonard trade. The reliability of LaMarcus Aldridge and DeRozan should see them grind out respectability, if little more.
If there is to be a Texan challenge in the West it is likely to again come from the Houston Rockets, whose general manager Daryl Morey is in win-now mode. Mike D’Antoni’s team are built around reigning MVP James Harden and titanic point guard Chris Paul, who are joined by Carmelo Anthony. He could thrive with the amount of 3s he’ll get to shoot in D’Antoni’s system after a chastening year in Oklahoma City, though the Rockets have lost some defensive grit with the exits of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute.
What everybody hopes for is to avoid a repeat of the epic tank-a-thon of the final two months of last season, where almost half the league was merrily losing to maximise their draft lottery odds. Reform remains an eventual possibility. The Dallas Mavericks did well from it, picking up 19-year-old Luka Doncic, the Euroleague MVP, at number 3, and he could bloom under the tutelage of one the European greats, the veteran Dirk Nowitzki, who is returning for a 21st NBA season. Big names like the Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks (the latter are missing their European star, Kristaps Porzingis, who is recovering from an ACL injury) again face tough campaigns.
For now the sheer majesty of the Warriors – although it causes much handwringing over competitive imbalance – will paper over a few cracks when the post-season rolls in.